Date: Wed, 4 Sep 96 02:51:00 GMT
Copyright (c) 1996 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.
Chapter 27 - Aug 4 to Aug 17 Watson LK, YT to Kitwanga, BC - 10,317 miles cumulative
Watson Lake, home to a population of about 1200 people, is located just 13 miles east of the turn for the Casiar highway and about 10 miles north of British Columbia. It's another Yukon town whose very existance depends entirely upon traffic on the AlCan. Frank Watson founded Watson Lake about 8 miles further east in the late 1800s just after the Klondike gold rush. The town was later moved during the AlCan construction. Originally from England, he came to the area with the same intention as so many other men, to find gold. Unlike the others, he was one of the few, and crazy, to choose the most difficult overland route from Edmonton. After about a year of slogging through muskeg, bush, swamps, and forest he made it this far. Still 600 miles from the gold fields he decided he'd had enough and settled down. He opened a small trading post and that was about it.
Watson Lake was destined to become much more than just a one trading post town. One fellow, I forget just who, had this grand and glorious scheme of setting up airfields along the Great Circle route from the eastern U.S. to Tokyo. He happened to settle upon having Frank Watson's little town as the first of the many airstrips enroute. This dream did not come alive at that time. But, in WWII the U.S. armed forces quickly saw Watson Lake as an opportune airstrip for their air cargo route to Alaska. The AlCan then followed to support the airstrips. They say that the AlCan is probably the only major road in the world whose route was selected to link airfields. It didn't follow the easiest route, already surveyed routes, animal or Indian trails, or even already existing highways. Nope. It just connected airfields.
Watson Lake became one of the major staging points for the Army Corps of Engineers working on the road. As so often happens when the military occupies a place for a while, a strange and unique custom developed. One of the soldiers, named Lindley, was recovering from an injury at the Watson Lake camp. Rather than have a soldier unable to do heavy work but perfectly capable of some light duty, sitting around, his commanding officer ordered him to repaint the direction sign. You know, one of those posts with multiple signs pointing somewhere southeast proclaiming New York City is 3265 miles away, Los Angeles 2055. While painting, Lindley decided to add his own sign pointing the way to his hometown of Danville, Ill. This started the ball rolling. In the beginning signs pointing to various hometowns were added in a trickle. But soon the flood gates opened, surpassing 6,000 signs in 1989 and 27,000 signs in 1995. And the number continues to grow. Even as we wandered through this veritable forest of 10 ft tall poles bearing the signature of cities and towns worldwide we could hear the thump, thump of another being added somewhere in the sign maze. There's so many signs now finding one for your particular hometown is difficult unless you're quite lucky. We happened to find Casper, Wyo, Poway, Ca, and even a place called Cazenovia, Wisc. I didn't know there was more than one Cazenovia in the world. There weren't just signs nailed securely to these 10 ft poles. I happened across hats, a hockey stick, bicycle tire, stuffed animals, toilet seats, and one person even managed to nail an emptied (at least I assume it was empty) beer keg. Anything goes in the sign post forest. Oh, and if the highway department people are wondering where all those road signs disappear to, I think they may just be in Watson Lake.
August 5 and fall came to the Yukon. Both times we've ridden through the northern states from west to east fall weather seemed to hit almost immediately after the Labor Day holiday in September. The first Artic cold front of the season would spread its frigid fingers southward to the lower 48 dropping the average temperatures by up to 50 degrees overnight. Being further north, these Artic fronts start hitting the Yukon territory as early as early August. Summer is short, short, short. After two long days of continual drizzle we dragged our soaking wet bones into Watson Lake hoping against all hopes that the weather would clear. But, this was not to be. The cold gray drizzly weather kept its grip on the region for day after day after day. Temperatures dropped to the high 40s and 50s. Everything gradualy became damp or just plain soaking wet. And as we climbed back toward the Continental Divide along the Cassiar Highway we were stunned to see the beginnings of fall colors. At first a few leaves here and there. Then small trees completely turned yellow. I can't believe we're chanting again, "Time to head south"
Leaving the AlCan and entering the Cassiar highway was like a breath of fresh air. After nearly 3 weeks riding on a 2 lane road that most folks seem to drive like a four lane expressway, the Cassiar was no more than a quite 2 lane country road. It's not that the quality of the road surface or the terrain changed all that much. It's the personality of the drivers that changed. Still having about 80 miles of gravel road and having more curves and steeper climbs, the traffic with the "gotta go fast" mentality tend to avoid this road. People who have time and want to enjoy the scenery take the Cassiar. Not only did the volume of traffic decrease substantially, but the character changed. We saw a much higher percentage of cars, pick-up trucks, vans, and small RVs. Those giant 40+ ft RVs towing cars were a significantly smaller portion of the traffic. On the AlCan we estimated 7 out of every 10 vehicles were a 30+ ft RV of some sort. On the Cassiar it's probably more like 2 out of 10. There were a lot more vehicles with canoes and bikes strapped on top as well. Consequently these folks tended to be far more considerate of us. They'd really slow down and pull as far over to the left as possible. A few even waited as we crawled up hills so they could pass with clear vision. We have come to the conclusion that if one chooses to ride to Alaska the best route is any that avoids the AlCan as much as possible.
After 3 days riding in an almost not stop drizzle and a mere 18 miles from the last town of any size for another 350 miles, Dease Lake, we stopped at a well hidden roadside campsite right on the lake for the night. After managing to get the tent set up in a fairly dry condition and putting together a hot supper of various soups and pasta, we reposed on the picnic table bench to watch the gray clouds pass by. Winds were out of the southwest and a small clearing was making its way toward our spot. But, gray clouds continued to slither across the hills on the opposing lakeshore. Momentary spots of blue sky appeared overhead, but the sun stubbornly refused to shine through. As the sun headed to the horizon the play of light against the massive cloud banks covering the sky created colors of pinks, oranges, greens, blues, grays, and whites. It was beautiful in an ominous stormy sort of way. But we'd had enough of this rain and wondered when we'd see another sunny day.
As I sat on the bench, having had a supper of Lipton Kettle Creation soup with pasta and chocolate chip cookies for desert, I thought about those amazing pioneers, fur trappers, and Indians. Just imagine traveling along on a cold rainy day and finally coming to your camp site for the night. One of the first things you'd have to do is hunt down branches and pine boughs to make some sort of shelter. It wouldn't exactly be dry but it would hold out any additional rain. Next you'd have to figure out how to get a fire started using this damp wet material. Then there's the matter of food. You'd have to forage, hunt, or fish for dinner. There's no popping up the lightweight nylon tent, pulling out the Coleman stove, and drawing upon food supplies gathered at the roadhouse a few miles earlier. One thing bike touring has taught us is a far greater appreciation for the little luxeries of modern day life.
Even just being able to get a hot shower more than once every few days is an amazing luxery we've grown to truly appreciate. I keep remembering the woman I met at the Tok visitor center. She was so anxious to get a shower simply because they'd driven, in their 30 ft RV, over the dirt Taylor highway. She now felt as though she was covered in dust and just couldn't go another hour without a shower. Mind you she hadn't been doing physical activity nor had she been outside in the dust. She'd been safely inside the fully enclosed cocoon of her RV just sitting. As I sit here typing, having gone 4 days with no shower, ridden up and down hills sweating profusely into my very tightly woven rain suit, my hair sort of plastered to my head, wrapped in a sleeping bag that feels clammy and damp, smelling all to much like a human (sure to keep the bears at bay), I have to laugh at how petty this woman seemed to me. Yet, I am sure my complaints would seem just as petty to those tough pioneers and trappers.
On August 9, at 3:05 PM as we approached the town of Dease Lake my odometer reached the 10,000 mile mark. One year minus three days from the day we started this grand and glorious adventure. It's so hard to believe a year has come and gone. So much has happened in that time. Many great places will forever stay in our memories some of which we will certainly return to someday; the Naval Air Museum in Pensacola, the C&O tow path, Gila National Monument, Denali National Park. There were some not so nice places we hope to never see again like Andrews, SC and Bogalusa, LA. We've had good weather and bad, record hot temperatures and record cold, rain and even sleet, howling head winds and sand storms. Yet we've also seen many, many of those ideal bike touring days with perfect temperatures, tail winds, downhills, and great scenery. Through it all I believe it's the people we've met who have most touched our lives. We shall never forget each and every one.
So what's on tap for this next year. Well, as we've learned through this year plans can and do change to match the circumstances. But currently we plan to continue our ride to San Diego. From there it'll be a much slower paced tour of Mexico, combining biking with busses and trains through areas of high traffic. Then it's the far northeast for the summer of 97. Beyond that, Europe perhaps, or some as yet unplanned adventure.
We spent the anniversary day of our departure date riding up and down mountain passes with a cloudy blue sky overhead and howling headwinds sapping our strength. The scenery was jagged, glacier carved mountain peaks decorated here and there with bits of leftover winter snow, gurgeling mountain streams of crystal clear water showing multicolored lichen covered rocks on its bed, emerald blue lakes with glinting white capped waves sloshing about in response to the winds, spruce and aspen trees that seemed to be getting taller and taller with each southward mile ridden. It was mountain scenery at its best. Now if only we'd get a tailwind. Temperatures stayed in the high 50s to low 60s all day. Quite a contrast from that year ago day where temperatures were well over 100 as we left Castle Rock, CO. We peddaled hard, stopping only for lunch overlooking one of those emerld lakes and for getting our photos taken by a member of the Milepost book staff, and collapsed totally exhausted into the wonderful Red Goat campground for day of absolutely no bike riding. A rest much needed.
Life along the 450 mile long Cassiar revolves mostly around the road, tourism and road construction, and logging in the southern part. The only towns of any size are Dease Lake and Iskut, neither of which are incorporated. Two construction camps have been built, one at Meziadin Junction and the other at Bob Quinn Lake. The only other services are the few cafes, lodges, and tiny stores at the roadhouses. It's a road of few, few services.
80 miles of the road broken into 4 sections are still potholed gravel. For bike tourists this means four separate days having some amount of gravel riding. Dirt roads can be in one of three states, dry and real dusty, slightly wet and tolerable, or soaked and real muddy. We endured all three. First there was mud which quickly soakes everything turning us into rolling lumps of brown sludge. I watch in complete dismay as mud from my front wheel completely coats my nice relatively new boots. There was no cleaning up that night as we camped at a roadside rest area with but a picnic table and outhouse for services. The next day the road was dryer, but the bikes were already so mud caked it didn't help. By the time we reached the fourth and final dirt section the road had dried and become dusty. We tried to dodge rocks thrown up from passing vehicles but a couple got us in the face leaving a good red stinging spot. Several folks in vehicles have asked what we do on these washboard sections. Well, it's simply a lot of weaving around holes and bouncing off others all the while hoping the wheels and tires hold. We get a few RVers upset with all our weaving. But we figure they needed to slow down anyway.
The end of the dirt was a sight made in heaven. Not only were we treated to a paved road, but it was a brand spanking new road at that. They were literally laying down the last stretch of asphalt, not even that crummy ole chipseal, just as we came by. The road was as smooth as a flat sheet of concrete, which made our miserably complaining squeeky chains all that more noticable. We don't expect to see dirt roads or so much construction again until we get to Mexico.
This is a highly concentrated bear country. Bears abound all over, especially in the Meziadin Junction area. Unfortunately it's been a real rough year, from a bear's standpoint. Spring came late which meant there were few early grasses to eat. Summer has been cold with even a few snows. So there are no berries. The bears are hungry this year. There've already been several reports of bear maulings, one girl killed in the Kluane lake area and another man mauled near Tok. Along the Cassiar they're coming down to the road to eat the clover that seems to grow profusely where the soil has been disturbed. It means lots of bear sightings. Now what do you do if you're riding along and see a bear up ahead? Well, you make noise to be sure the bear knows you're there. If it ignores you, you either backup or just wait for it to leave. Could make things interesting should this bear decide to sit on the side of the road all day. Fortunately, our bears seem to move under cover whenever a car passes so we do get to move forward.
It also means we need to be extra careful when camping. We try to stay in campgrounds with lots of people or where there's lots of human generted noise. When that's not possible, it's back to cooking long distances from the tent and hanging everything that smells. I always love to look at those bear brochures given out by the U.S. Park and Forest services. They show a sketch of someone hanging their food in this tree that has this one, single strong branch sticking out horizontally just the right distance with no branches above or below to cause problems. Yeah, right. You just go out in the woods and try to find a tree like that. They don't exist. They'll have scrawny little or even dead branches that aren't long enough or even horizontal and there's always other branches or trees getting in the way. Someone needs to write a new brochure, "How to hang your food in a real tree."
We rode the Cassiar highway for 453 miles of rain, headwinds, steep hills, 80 miles of muddy dirt roads, bear infested country, miles and miles of tree filled wilderness, stores located only every 60 to 100 miles having not much more than chips and candy bars for sale, wet, cold, and tired every day. It took 11 difficult days to finally arrive the tiny logging community of Kitwanga and at long last we found some semblance of suberbia Northamerica style. How did we recognize suberbia? First, the houses were normal houses with painted wood siding, lots of balconies, shutters on the windows, normal 2 story run of the mill buildings. Gone were the roadhouses of log type construction or the array of assorted sidings in some not quite finished state with an assorted collection of junk cars, machines, and buildings of unidentifiable use. Gravel parking lots prepared for those 30+ ft RVs and semi trucks were replaced by carefully manicured lawns, gazebos, flower gardens displaying a plethora of fall colors, picnic tables, and those tangled masses of plastic and metal tubing considered to be the play land of small children. But, the most important indicator was the return of those funny little plastic cars. We've all seen them. Shaped like a 2 year old sized Volkswagon of bright orange and yellow plastic, these virtually indestructible little cars have popped up in every house containing a 2 year old, boy or girl, all across North America. It seems to be a partenal requirement, if you have a 2 year old your neighbors would have good reason to suspect your parenting abilities if at least one of these little orange and yellow contraptions didn't appear at your doorstep.
For us on bicycle, the return to suberbia meant well stocked grocery stores on a regular basis, cafes to get hot meals on cold rainy days, the chance to shower more than every 4 days, and clean, dry clothes. We've concluded that riding the Cassiar could be an absolutely wonderful experience, in good warm, sunny dry weather. The scenery could be fantastic and the free camping so easy to find. But, in poor weather and rain, the views are obscured by clouds and the wet permeates everything. It made for a difficult and sometimes miserable ride for us on this particular occasion. Oh well, that's all part of bike touring, isn't it?
Appendix A - Route
Alaska highway to Casiar highway Casiar highway to Kitwanga
Appendix B - Campsites
Beaver Dam roadside rest area, Jade City RV park ($), Dease Lake roadside rest area, Dease Lake RV park ($), Red Goat campground in Iskut 2 nights ($), Willow Ridge Resort ($), Bell II crossing, Meziadin Lake Prov Park ($), Bonus Lake Forest Service Rec Site, Cassiar RV Park in Kitwange, 2 nights ($)
($) indicates fee camping
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.